Ghosts of My Grandfather’s Village
The Holocaust destroyed Plock’s Jewish community. But the exodus started decades earlier, after World War I.
And yet, I still couldn’t quite access my grandfather’s story—how he lived, and why he left. Henry might have seen these buildings, Henry might have stood in this synagogue, Henry might have lived on one of these streets. But when he looked around a hundred years ago, he didn’t just see these structures. He saw people. Jews. And they are gone, all gone, less than ghosts.
And that, of course, is the story of the Holocaust. But my grandfather left decades before the Nazis invaded, before the armbands and the Gestapo and the murders in the forest and the deportations to Treblinka. So, the Holocaust, which looms so large as to absorb all of Plock’s Jewish history into a single endpoint—seeming to explain what happened to the city’s Jews with utter simplicity and veracity—does not, in fact, explain what happened to my grandfather and his family, and why they left when they did.
The city’s Jewish population fell between the world wars, from some 12,000 in 1910 to roughly 9,000 on the eve of World War II. A quarter of the city’s Jews left Plock—and yet, since this exodus pales next to the total annihilation of the 1940s, it warrants little comment in histories of Plock or the city’s new museum. Wojtalewicz suggested that relations between Jews and non-Jews around the time the Bornsteins emigrated were “positive” and “normal” and noted that while some Jews left for larger cities in Poland in search of work, there were no notable instances of anti-Semitic violence and no “major” immigration at that point. Economic considerations didn’t seem like my ancestors’ motivations, since they were apparently better off financially in Poland than they’d ever be in Jersey City.
So, what was it? A pogrom that has gone unrecorded, deemed insignificant compared to the events that followed? A backlash from the newly independent Poles following Germany’s occupation of the city during World War I in 1915—an allegedly non-destructive occupation for the community, which saw its political and cultural life expand greatly under the Germans? Something else?
My grandfather has been dead for 36 years. There’s nobody left who knows first-hand, or even second-hand. And coming here won’t change that. In the end, everything is not illuminated.
It’s hard to tell a story about Jewish life in Poland that’s not about the Holocaust. The horrors of the Shoah are so vast and so complete that everything before them reads as mere prelude, rather than parallel narrative in its own right—a phenomenon known in some circles as “backshadowing.” But if a trip to Plock couldn’t fully make me understand why my grandfather left when he did, it did help me see what life was like in his early years.
Before we left Plock, I was able to close my eyes and think of the photographs of Jewish residents mounted by the dozen inside the museum and imagine those people multiplying and surrounding him, filling these empty streets with thousands upon thousands of Jews. My grandfather’s town had no fiddlers on roofs, no Tevye and his daughters. What it had was Henry, here sitting under a tree by the town hall, here chatting on the sidewalk outside the shul, here visiting friends in their new and narrow houses. And that, it turns out, is what’s missing now. Not an old mikveh or an overgrown cemetery. The people. The ones who were killed and the ones like my grandfather who—for whatever reason—got out of what they thought of as an awful place, before it was too late.
By avoiding authoritative rulings in favor of nuanced debate with the ideas of the past, the Oral Law refuses to simplify